Stupid Question ™
April 27, 2000
By John Ruch
Q: What happens to people who enter the witness protection program? Do they really give you a fake job and make you have plastic surgery?
—Mick the Weasel
A: Actually called the Witness Security Program (WITSEC), the program was established in 1970 to protect Mafia snitches by changing their identities after trial.
At least 7,000 witnesses have been through WITSEC, along with about 9,500 family members.
To get in, you have to convince the US Attorney General’s office that you have valuable testimony and that giving it risks your life.
Then you and your immediate family go to the Witness Security Safesite and Orientation Center in Washington, D.C., for psychological, medical and vocational testing, and a polygraph test. You also get counseling about the trauma of “disappearing.”
You then sign a “Memorandum of Understanding” in which US marshals agree to give you a new identity and home. In exchange, you agree to stay hidden, stay clean, never return home and testify in court.
You lose all contact with friends and extended family, with the possible exception of letters sent through WITSEC-run mail drops.
You discard anything that might identify you, from old yearbooks to your car (though you can usually keep pets). You are then given airplane tickets to a new US town selected by the marshals, typically at least 1,000 miles away. You choose a new name and invent a fake family tree back at least to your grandparents. All previous records on you are sealed, even from the police. You also get a “code red”—a phone number to call in case you’re in danger.
You get basic documents—Social Security card, driver’s license, birth certificate and any others you’re entitled to (from passports to diplomas).
You’ll get about $2,000 a month for bills until you’re settled, and may get help in finding a used car, house and job. You won’t get a fake credit or job history (in fact, you agree to pay all your old bills), and employers are usually told that you’re in the program.
That’s the average set-up, anyway. Actual treatment ranges from drug lords allowed to keep billions in ill-gotten gains to ex-bikers who got $30, a plane ticket and nothing else.
It’s unclear whether WITSEC has ever paid for plastic surgery; a new haircut is usually enough. Witnesses are trained to create cover stories and given information on their new hometowns.
Since 97 percent of WITSEC witnesses are themselves criminals, many have to serve time before relocation. They do it in one of five special WITSEC prison units that are extremely cushy, with free telephones, cable TV and almost anything else the witness can afford to ship in.